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18 March 2015updated 25 Jul 2021 4:03am

England’s private and inaccessible countryside

By Melissa Harrison

Some years ago, deep in the process of writing a novel, At Hawthorn Time, I decided to walk a section of the A5 north out of London, alone, over the course of four days. I wanted to follow the route taken by one of my characters: Jack, an itinerant farm worker, mystic and sometime road protestor recently released from prison. I knew that Watling Street itself, now a fast lorry route, wouldn’t have pavements for long stretches, but I’d thought I could amble alongside it, using the road as a guide. What I found, though, was that the land was all fenced off, private and inaccessible; being forced on to the few indirect public footpaths added many footsore miles to each day’s route.

Yet what it taught me proved central to Jack’s character and backstory. He is first arrested for trespass while crossing a rock star’s estate, and again for supposedly damaging a crop, after which a kind of local persecution starts – and his stubbornness sets in. “All he wanted to do was walk the land in which he’d been born, peacefully and subject to no one, and if you compromised that idea you might as well give up.”

Except in a few, designated areas of England, none of us can walk the land in the way Jack believes is his right. Unlike in Scotland, where it’s now the default for uncultivated areas, “open access” land still only makes up about 10 per cent of England and Wales, which shrinks even further in the south-east, where almost all open land is cultivated. For example, less than 1.5 per cent of west Berkshire is open to the “right to roam” established in 2000 by New Labour’s Countryside and Rights of Way Act. Outside of such areas, since 1994’s notorious Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, trespass on to land “in the immediate and exclusive possession of another” can be prosecuted as a crime, with no need even to prove that harm to the land has occurred.

And as Guy Shrubsole lays out in his painstakingly researched book Who Owns England?, almost every inch of this country is “in the immediate and exclusive possession of another” – overwhelmingly still the aristocracy and gentry, who own 30 per cent of the ground under our feet, but also the Crown, the Church, the state, companies, Oxbridge colleges, new money, overseas investors, conservation charities and, of course, homeowners (just 5 per cent). Unsurprisingly, the picture Shrubsole paints, after many months of frustrating research, Freedom of Information requests, opportune leaks, computer modelling and number-crunching, is one of vast, robustly defended and ongoing inequality. Despite some data gaps it’s a safe bet, he says, that half of this country is owned by less than 1 per cent of the population.

“Who owns land matters,” Shrubsole writes. “How landowners use their land has implications for almost everything: where we build our homes, how we grow our food, how much space we leave for nature.” He’s right; how can we fix the housing crisis, prevent flooding or reverse biodiversity loss without transparency around who owns and controls the land on which we all depend for these things? Yet in many cases it’s impossible for experienced researchers – let alone you or me – to find out who exactly owns what, for the simple reason that “concealing wealth is part and parcel of preserving it”, as Shrubsole believes. With the programmer and data analyst Anna Powell-Smith he runs the website, which is dedicated to mapping England’s ownership and furthering transparency about land. Much of the book’s data is drawn from the ongoing jigsaw being assembled on the site.

After a slightly dry start in which the complexities of historical land data and modern research methods are explained, Who Owns England? takes us on a tour of how land has been owned and managed here, from William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book (“a swag list”) and the subsequent carve-up of England for the aristocracy to the purchase of London mansions, country piles and grouse moors by American industrialists, Arab royalty and Russian oligarchs. Notable stop-offs include the Crown’s anachronistic and opaque Duchies; the Church’s quietly profitable sell-off of glebe land, once used to support parish priests; the fire sale of state-held land, which began under Thatcher and continues apace today; and the pressured history of county farms, allotments and common land, all of which have held enormous value for ordinary people.

Though broken up here and there with Shrubsole’s exploits, including chaining himself to a digger, descending into a tunnel under Whitehall and several instances of trespass, it’s a dense read, packed with data and descriptions of complex political manoeuvrings. For the body of the book he mostly avoids tub-thumping, but his own, left-wing politics are not exactly disguised.

In the final chapter Shrubsole lays out an ambitious manifesto for land reform. That Land Registry data should be completed and then opened up to the public without charge seems unarguable, and the process of reforming farm subsidies is, with Brexit, under way. Similarly, a public debate has been going on for some time now about rewilding the sheep-nibbled and grouse-reserved uplands such as the Cumbrian fells and North Yorkshire Moors.

He goes further, though, recommending the introduction of community right-to-buy legislation, extending the right to roam (as in Scotland), setting up a public register of trusts and land options, making rural land use subject to the planning system and even replacing primogeniture with the ancient system of gavelkind, by which all (historically male) children inherit equally. How far you go along with his ideas will depend partly on your politics and partly on your optimism, something that’s currently in short supply. But having come to the end of this illuminating and well-argued book it’s hard not to feel, as my character Jack did, that it’s time for a revolution in the way we manage this green and pleasant land. 

Melissa Harrison’s books include “All Among the Barley” (Bloomsbury)

Who Owns England?: How We Lost Our Green and Pleasant Land and How to Take It Back
Guy Shrubsole
William Collins, 384pp, £20

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This article appears in the 15 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the Irish question